chibi / blog / 4th july 2019

Word diary: cremains

Welcome to the first instalment of my word diary. For my own edification and the interest of any readers I have, this diary will record every new word that I learn. Since it is a word diary, I should pre-empt any pedants and point out that I have already committed an etymological sin. Diary, of course, comes from the Latin dies, meaning 'day'; thus it should really denote a daily record of some kind, but I do not plan to learn a new word every day. Hopefully you can forgive me for this. My 'diary' will instead be added to from time to time, whenever I encounter an unfamiliar string of letters in a book, magazine, newspaper or song. This procedure raises the point that words come wild and tame, just like animals. There is nothing wrong with perusing the pages of a great dictionary for pleasure, where the words have been tamed, defined and carefully herded into tight quarters for convenient reading. But we must not forget that words live outside the dictionary -- just as fish are not only to be found in the aquarium. So the purest connection we can have with a word is in its natural habitat, a context in which the word is used to put across a certain meaning. That is the aim of my word diary: not to dig up dead words to show off, but to present words which I encountered and needed and wanted to understand. My first entry is neither esoteric nor complicated: cremains.

I encountered it in the National Geographic issue for May 2019, in an article entitled 'The Future of Dying in Style':

By way of a smartphone app and a kind of interactive funeral urn, the Bios system lets grieving families turn their departed loved one into an indoor tree for their home. A capsule of cremains is bedded in a large pot, in which a seedling is planted.

The article was about how we will dispose of the dead in the future, and so it was quite clear from the context that cremains means 'the ashes of a cremated body'. The etymology is transparent, too: it is a portmanteau word, a blend of cremated and remains.

Portmanteau words are not my favourite. It is a lazy way to coin new terms; they are often ugly; and many are abandoned early on in their miserable word-lives. Those who come up with them often use the most tenuous similarity in sound between two syllables to justify forcing them into a new portmanteau. For example, there is absolutely no rhyme between the word work and the first syllable of vacation, but this has not prevented some unimaginative neologist from creating the hideous workcation, meaning 'a holiday during which one works remotely'. At least cremains is not this bad; the two words of which it is composed share enough sounds to make it 'work'. But I cannot help feeling a slight unease at it anyhow; the blending of words reminds me strongly of a pun, which is ill-fitted to the purpose of describing the remains of the dead. Cremains is not a word to make one laugh, but its construction makes it sound like a comedic effort.

One interesting thing I found during my brief researches into cremains is that it is a new word for the Oxford English Dictionary; that is, it is not to be found in either of the two multivolume print editions which currently exist. It was only added to the online edition of the OED in March 2007. However, the savvy editors and readers tasked with looking into this word found an illustrative quotation as early as 1950 from an American newspaper. So, while cremains looked and sounded awfully modern when I first read it, it is older than colour television. Still, when viewed in terms of the history of the English language, it is barely out of nappies.

  • Wiktionary entry for cremains
  • OED entry for cremains